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CLIMATE CHANGE

A GRANDPARENT’S GUIDE

OUTLINE

    • Introduction
    • The Greenhouse effect
    • The Earth as a greenhouse
    • Controlling global temperature
    • Human response
    • An Emissions Trading Scheme for Green Island
    • Conclusion
    The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge        Ezekiel  18.2
    Visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children unto the third and fourth generation.
    Exodus  34.7
    Your grandchildren will curse you for being selfish and self-indulgent

INTRODUCTION

I have nine grandchildren, and am concerned that by the time they reach my age, which on average will be in the year 2080, they will live in a much worse environment than they do now. Why is this likely to be so, and what can we do about it?

Discussions about climate change almost all assume that we understand why an increase in global temperature will make life on earth more difficult. They also assume that we understand how an emissions trading or other scheme may prevent a dangerous increase in global warming. Nowhere are there simple answers to the questions:

    • How is the Earth’s temperature kept at a safe level?
    • Is there any chance of it getting uncomfortably hotter?
    • What can we do about it?

In the answer to the last question we need to know what are the alternatives, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of each of them

THE GREENHOUSE EFFECT

To know how the Earth’s surface keeps within a range of temperatures suitable for us and all other living things to exist on it we need first to understand how a greenhouse works. A greenhouse has a glass roof and sides. The glass allows the energy from the sun to enter the greenhouse in the form of visible light.

This heats up the floor of the greenhouse and the air inside it. Heat is then radiated outwards from the the heat held in the ground and the air. The outward flow of energy is in the form of infra-red energy (heat), which cannot pass out of the glass as readily as the heat in the visible light can pass in.

Figure 1 The Greenhouse effect

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The difference in energy flow in and out means that the inside of the greenhouse warms up. As the temperature increases a point is reached when the flows in and out are in balance. The balance temperature can be altered up or down in several ways.   Double glazing, or two panes separated by an air gap, will make it more difficult for infra-red energy to pass out, and the inside of the greenhouse will become warmer. Plastic sheeting or film can be used instead of glass, and the plastic can be chemically altered to raise or lower the temperature. The important point is that changes to the greenhouse canopy will make it warmer or cooler inside.

THE EARTH AS A GREENHOUSE

This section has been re-written by Josh Dowse. His contribution is acknowledged with thanks

The glass roof and walls of a domestic greenhouse trap the heat of the sun so that the inside is warmer than outside. The greenhouse canopy of the Earth acts like the glass panes of a greenhouse, but it is made of a unique mix of gases in our atmosphere.

When everything is in balance, the heat from the sun entering the Earth system will equal the heat going back into space. The Earth then keeps a stable temperature, just right for its inhabitants – plant, animal, and human.

However, if the mix of gases in our greenhouse canopy changes, then that balance is upset. If there is more of what we call ‘greenhouse gases’ in that mix, then the average temperature on Earth will rise. This is the so-called ‘greenhouse effect’.

Figure 2.  The Earth as a greenhouse

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Really, the greenhouse effect is always there, but what we mean is that it is getting stronger when there are more greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. And as it gets stronger, the Earth warms up.

You might think that the Earth being a little warmer wouldn’t do any harm – in fact many people in Europe, north Asia and north America might well appreciate it. But ‘global warming’ doesn’t mean we all get a degree or two cosier. It’s an average warming for the system, not an even one.

So how much warmer might we get? It’s worth noting first that the average temperature now is about 14°C. But that covers both land and sea. Believe it or not, the average temperature over our oceans is 16°C, but over land it is only 8.5°C.  It looks from the science that we cannot avoid an average temperature rise of 2°C.  Compared to the 8.5°C for land temperatures, that is not trivial. With that extra heat, the Earth’s climate systems get a lot more active. Cold air and warm air move about more quickly, and come together with more energy. So we will expect more violent storms, more often.

In Cairns, for example, tropical cyclones will be 25% more frequent, with 10% greater winds and 25% more rain, so that the height of a ‘one-in-a-hundred-year’ storm surge will rise by 22%, flooding twice the area experienced before.

As the oceans warm, ocean currents may shift their patterns, moving warm currents where they’re not wanted. Over 95% of the Great Barrier Reef is likely to be bleached, about 80% of the Kakadu wetlands lost, and the lucrative lobster nurseries of Western Australia will have to find a new home much further south.

Some of the most direct and obvious effects of global warming are ones we hear surprisingly little about – the greater risks to health from the higher temperatures. We can expect heat-related deaths among citizens over 65 to double. Tropical diseases like Dengue fever will spread south to Brisbane, and quite possibly to Sydney. And bush firestorms will be 10% more frequent according to CSIRO models, though that figure is thought to be conservative.

CONTROLLING GLOBAL TEMPERATURE

Besides the calamities described in the previous section there may be progressive melting of ice in the Arctic regions, on icecaps as in Greenland, on high mountain ranges and in glaciers. This may result in the ocean levels rising, with dire consequences for low-lying islands  and shores. What is the mechanism that gives rise to the average over-ocean and over-land temperatures?

Our environment is affected by several factors, some natural and some man-made. The natural ones include sunspot activity, solar cycles, long-term climate trends and changes in ocean temperatures giving rise to such things as El Nino and La Nina, or Southern Oscillation events. The fluctuations of the Southern Oscillation involve large changes in the transfer of heat between the ocean and the atmosphere.

Man-made factors having an effect are especially the emissions arising from human activities such as coal-fired power stations, manufacturing plants making cement, aluminium, and steel msking, refining oil, and making many other products. Emissions come from the use of petrol and diesel in cars and trucks, and from agriculture. The combination of natural and man-made emissions determines the density of the Earth’s canopy

Natural emissions keep the Earth’s canopy at a suitable thickness for animals and plants to live and thrive. There have been long-term changes in the climate, such as ice-ages, when suitable conditions have been substantially reduced in area. Short-term changes result from some of the things mentioned earlier such as solar cycles and Southern Oscillation events. However, we can say the the Earth’s environment is unlikely to change over the next few decades due to natural causes alone.

We do know that since the start of the Industrial Revolution in about 1750 the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from human activity has increased significantly.

One estimate is that the greenhouse gas concentration has increased from 275 parts per million (ppm) CO2 equivalent before 1750 to 390 ppm now. Changes to the canopy from natural causes occur very slowly, and except for the occasional variation they have not changed since 1750. It appears therefore that the change in the thickness of the canopy is due to human activity.

As the diagram of Figure 3 shows, the concentration of CO2-e depends on the volume of greenhouse gases emitted, and the global temperature depends on the concentration of CO2-e. As we have seen, if the global temperature increases, Earth’s climate will become more threatening. Nature will respond to the increase, but only slowly. Humans can act more quickly. What can we do?

Figure 3. Controlling global temperature

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Before we can do anything we need to know the size of the problem. This we do by putting numbers into the stages of Figure 3. The three stages going from right to left are: What is the global temperature we should not exceed? What parts per million of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is the limit that corresponds to the global temperature limit? How many tonnes of emissions does this represent?

Working from right to left in the diagram , we are told that a rise in global temperature of more than 2 deg C will trigger unpleasant consequences for our environment, as we described earlier. To prevent such  a rise the research tells us that we need to keep the density of the Earth’s greenhouse canopy below 450 ppm.

It is obvious that there is some connection between the volume of emissions and the thickness of the canopy, but it is not easy to express that relationship in numbers. However, we can approach this problem from a different angle. What we are trying to do is to eliminate the effect of man-made emissions on the environment. This means that over time we have to reduce net man-made emissions to zero. There will still be emissions, but they will be counterbalanced by carbon capture, reforestation and other carbon sinks.

Research tells us two things: one, that net emissions should become zero by 2050; two, that for this to happen the World could emit 1000 Gt (gigatonnes, or one thousand million tonnes) of greenhouse gas between 2000 and 2050. Records show that from 2000 to 2010 approximately 300 Gt of greenhouse gases have been emitted, leaving the World with a maximum of 700 Gt from now until 2050.

Australia, with a population of 22 million, has 0.33% of the World’s population. If responsibility for emissions is to be allocated on a per head basis for the whole world, then Australia will be able to emit 2,310 megatonnes from now until 2050. The Department of Climate Change reports in its national greenhouse accounts that emissions for the 12 months to 30 June 2009 were 544 megatonnes. Assuming this rate of emissions continues, Australia would be expected to reach zero emissions in a bit less than five years.

However, there is no current agreement that each human on the planet has the same allotment to emit CO2. To be realistic, the World will have to evolve towards such  an allotment scheme over quite a few years to avoid big discontinuities in economies. It makes it clear why third-world nations were critical of the developed nations at Copenhagen.

HUMAN RESPONSE

We agree that the probability of dangerous global warming is sufficient, say 70-80%, for action to be taken to insure that it doesn’t happen. Action can be taken by the World community, by a nation on its own, and by corporations and individuals .

In the light of what happened at Copenhagen in late 2009 it seems unlikely that there will be concerted international action for some time. Some individual nations are taking action independently. This may disadvantage them in international trading in the short term, but put them well ahead when the world as a whole is forced to take action to control carbon emissions. This Guide takes the view that Australia should start to act now.

The basic purpose of any human anti-warming action is to reduce the amount of carbon (used from here on as shorthand for carbon dioxide equivalent) emitted from human activities. Controlling carbon emissions by whatever method will mean that some industries will fare better than others, and some people will have to change their jobs. There will be some pain and inconvenience. If we believe that climate change poses a threat to future generations, and we want to do something for our descendents, we must accept that pain. However, the pain will not last long.

Over the years there have been several major changes affecting the Australian economy. One of these was the reduction of tariffs in the last few years of the 20th Century. Two industries in particular suffered. Employment in car manufacturing dropped from100,000 to 45,000, and in textiles clothing and footwear from 113,000 to 49,000. These changes took place over several years, and the changes for people and businesses were gradually absorbed without causing major pain.

The vital thing is to transfer activities from carbon-intensive operations to those emitting less carbon. In some cases this could mean transfer of a business, for example closing down a coal-fired power station and replacing it with a station powered by some form of renewable energy. In many other cases the business could find innovative ways by which to reduce its carbon output, which could have two benefits. First, Australian companies could market the techniques to the rest of the world; second, when an international agreement is finally reached to reduce pollution Australian will be well ahead.

Agencies who can respond to climate change

The three responding agencies in Australia are the Government, corporations, and individuals. The Government can force action, and is the most important agency. Action by corporations is voluntary, but it can be encouraged by a system of penalties and incentives. There may be a payment for exceeding an allowed level of emissions, or reduction of emissions in an emissions trading scheme may let the corporation make a profit if it can sell some of its emissions permits.

Efforts by individuals are gererally voluntary, although the carrot and stick method can again be used by incentives and penalties. The aggregate of individual action is significant, and action is to be encouraged. Possible actions by each of the three agencies is now discussed.

Action by Government

It is the Government that has the power to take the strongest action; but it also has the chance to make the greatest mistakes. It has to select or design the scheme that will provide an incentive for people to stop emitting carbon dioxide. The two simple ways of doing it are to put a price on emissions or to set a cap for the amount emitted.

Putting a price on emissions is simple to administer, but you do not know what the quantity of emissions is going to be. If you set a cap for emissions, on the other hand, you have a firm limit on emissions; from that a trading scheme must evolve in which the price of emissions will vary. To summarize, there is a relationship between a price (carbon tax rate) and quantity emitted; fix the price and the quantity will vary, fix the quantity and the price will vary.

To achieve the objective of reducing emissions from human activities – the fundamental purpose of climate change action – setting a cap for emissions is better than setting a price or carbon tax.

A Cap and Trade Emissions Trading Scheme sets a target for maximum greenhouse gas emissions over a period of time, generally a year. This target is gradually reduced to cope with such things as population increase, and to arrive at the desired level of greenhouse gas in an orderly fashion. The maximum level is a “cap”, and has to be allocated across all polluting countries. The countries in turn allocate limits of emission to industries or other groupings. Licences to emit are issued in the form of permits.

The requirements of an effective emissions trading scheme are that it has rules governing:

    • The limit on emissions
    • The creation and issuance of permits
    • Who must or can participate in the scheme
    • The means by which permits are exchanged between buyers and sellers
    • The timing and method of acquittal of obligations
    • The consequences for non-compliance
    • The treatment of sectors not covered by the scheme
    • The roles of government and other bodies in operating the scheme

Some of the problems with an ETS are: dividing the national target and allocating to sectors; setting an initial price for permits that will force action (the market will ultimately set the price); the possibility that the scheme will only result in the shuffling of permits; ensuring that the method of trading does not give huge profits and opportunities for corruption to the trading brokers.

To describe the mechanics of an ETS the steps taken by the Government of the fictitious Green Island is shown later in the Guide. It explains the basics, and in real life would be greatly elaborated, and tied into any international initiatives.

Action by corporations

Action by corporations can include

    1. Use different methods to provide a product. Electricity generation by coal-fired plant is a heavy polluter. Alternative ways to provide electricity are: gas, solar, wind, tidal, hydro, and geothermal.
    2. Adapt or modify coal-fired plant by clean coal techniques so that its emissions are reduced. Such action will need accelerated research, and will come at a cost. There are also likely to be additional operating costs
    3. Reduce emissions of methane by using that gas to generate electricity, or to create product by reacting methane with other chemicals.
    4. Develop carbon sinks. CO2 can be captured at its source and stored, as for example in exhausted oil wells.
    5. Create CO2 absorbing sinks, particularly forests
    6. Prevent the cutting down of existing forests, especially rainforests. Use different methods for obtaining timber eg from plantations.
    7. Change transport systems to use less petroleum-based fuels.

Action by individuals

In our own homes and outside activities we as individuals can take action to reduce our carbon footprint. Some of the things we can do are:

    1. Use less electricity by turning off lights or appliances when they are not needed
    2. Avoid using air-conditioning by opening windows
    3. Minimize use of heating by wearing warmer clothes
    4. Use the microwave for cooking whenever possible
    5. Buy efficent electrical equipment when you need to replace an item. Replace water heaters when needed by solar-boosted models. Change to gas where that is available
    6. Instal roof insulation
    7. Walk or bicycle when possible rather than use your car. Buy a car with reflective paintwork. Drive efficiently to minimize use of fuel

These are only a few of the many possibilities.

AN EMISSIONS TRADING SCHEME FOR GREEN ISLAND

Green Island is fictitious

Green Island is a small but prosperous and fertile independent country. Its Government has decided that they will take action themselves to combat global warming. The first major action they propose is to set up an Emissions Trading Scheme.

Pollution from the island has five main sources, and together they account for 95% of the total. The sources are five companies which include a power station, factories, a smelter, and a cement plant. The target for total emissions from these five companies together is 100 megatonnes (Mt) of greenhouse gases per yeat.

The Government’s first step is to make sure that from here on total emissions from Green Island do not exceed 100 Mt per year, which becomes the “cap” for greenhouse emissions. To enforce the cap the Government sells permits to the five companies allowing them to emit so much and no more. As it happens the five companies are equal users of energy, and each is therefore sold a permit to emit 20 Mt per year.

Figure 4. Emissions cap and allocation

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The five companies are not equally efficient at limiting their emissions. As Figure 5 shows, companies A and D emit more than they are allowed, C needs the full amount of its permit but no more, and B and E emit less than they are allowed. B and E have part of a permit they do not need, and could sell it to another company whose permit does not cover their emissions. The buying and selling of permits creates a market for trading permits, as Figure 5 shows.

The initial cap only means that pollution does not increase. The purpose of any attempt to stabilise Greenhouse Earth must be to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to an acceptable level, assuming that that level is now exceeded . This can be done in at least two ways:

    1. Companies reduce their emissions by plant improvement or other technological advance.
    2. Companies create carbon sinks to absorb pollution; one such sink is a forest. However, we must realize that this is not a long-term solution; it only buys time to get fossil fuel emissions under control.

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NOTE: the price of permits will set by the market soon after their issue

These actions and the initial purchase of permits will increase the companies’ operating costs. To remain viable, these costs must be recouped. The result will be a rise in the cost of electricity, petrol, manufactured goods, cement and other building materials, as well as many other commodities. The population as a whole have to bear these costs, and will therefore suffer.

Fortunately, the suffering may not have to last for very long. It may be avoided altogether if enough time, innovation and money is spent on designing and implementing ways to reduce emissions. These innovations could be marketed world-wide.

They can mitigate the suffering in several ways, using whatever ingenuity they can muster. They could use less, use more efficiently, use substitutes, don’t use. The government may provide offsets from the sale of permits, but it is more important to modify the behaviour of the people and that of the sources of pollution.

Price of emissions permits

The Green Island Government realises that the price they set for permits is critical. The basic aim of the scheme is to reduce pollution. There must be an incentive to reduce, rather than to shuffle permits around. Permit prices have to be high enough to make it worthwhile for polluters to invest in ways of reducing total pollution, either by installing methods to capture emissions or by creating carbon sinks.

Again, the Green Island government only sets the initial price, and in fact this could be set by auction. As time goes by the government will call in or cancel some permits, and the resulting scarcity will cause the price to rise.

Carbon sinks will trap some carbon dioxide from the emissions and store it. A particularly valuable type of sink is a forest, although is not the same as reducing emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Some companies will be able to reduce emissions by using a different method of production. For example, there are several alternative ways of generating electricity, wind, solar, tidal, and geothermal to mention some currently in limited use.

CONCLUSION

We as grandparents, and our children as parents, must act now to ensure that the environment in which future generations live will remain close to what it is now. While there is no certainty of climate degradation, the probability is high, and we should insure against it.

We should act now. There are many things we can do to reduce our personal carbon footprint, but the most effective action can only come from the Government. They must tell us what they propose and why, and it must be in simple terms to carry us along with them. There are three thngs they should do:

    • Tell voters what they propose to do and why
    • Tell them that they will suffer pain on behalf of their children and grandchildren
    • Act soon, and decisively

QUESTIONS FOR YOUR MP

Listed below are some questions you could ask federal Members of Parliament to get their views on climate change. This is a very brief preliminary list, and you will want to add many questions to it. The preference is to send it as a document, asking them to send you their answers in writing. If you really want to put the boot in you could add: “If you do not want to answer these questions I assume you have no interest in climate change.”

    1. Do you believe that man-made emissions are going to produce a risk of dangerous global warming?
    2. Do you believe that Australia should start to take action to control climate change now without waiting for concerted international action?
    3. Does it matter if Australia goes it alone? Can you see any dangers or benefits in so doing?
    4. Which do you prefer, a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme? Why?
    5. If you favour an ETS, would you sell or give permits? If you sold them, how much would you charge?
    6. Who must participate in an ETS? If you think there should be exceptions, who would they be and why?
    7. Who would run the trading scheme? What profits would traders and brokers be likely to make? Who would supervise and regulate the scheme to ensure that there was no corruption?
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